Sweeney’s stories include erotic memories triggered by a marble sculpture, a man who shows his daughter imaginary films, a couple who give each other electric shocks, and a man who likes his pornography from no later than the 1930s. It is an exceptional collection, with some strong scenarios that soon shift beyond novelty into unexpected and often profound perceptions.
Cathy Sweeney’s startling stories are very short, very unconventional and very strange. The book begins with the darkly funny A Love Story, in which the course of a marriage is condensed into a page and a half. It opens with a shockingly unforgettable line which sets the tone for an off-kilter collection that is economical with words, but full of hard-to-define emotion.
As the first lines of short story collections go, it’s pretty hard to beat the one that opens Modern Times, the debut of Irish writer Cathy Sweeney: “There once was a woman who loved her husband’s cock so much she began taking it to work in her lunchbox.” This, and the darkly funny page-and-a-half (A Love Story) it kicks off, are representative of Sweeney’s off-kilter sensibility. Her writing is direct, no-holds-barred; her sentences are as taut as bow strings... There are shades here of Angela Carter, Lydia Davis and Miranda July, but Sweeney’s style is all her own. Reading this book in a single sitting feels a bit like getting giddy from eating too many Easter eggs, so moreish is each one of these stories. Modern Times announces the arrival of an unforgettable new voice in Irish fiction.
The power of storytelling itself comes to be questioned by this worldliness: a narrator wonders why he undergoes emotions not relevant to his life on reading someone else’s testimony, although he has lost exactly what they have lost, without knowing it. If the fairy tale confronts familial and social conflicts, and the modern absurd deals with existential and political dread, Sweeney’s aesthetic focuses on the predictable collision of ordinary human frailty with circumstance. Much of its humour comes from this summarising jadedness: “You know how it is. The economy collapsed, the state broadcaster turned all staff positions into freelance ones, and before he knew it, he was scrabbling for commercials, drinking heavily and posting tweets late at night.”